Interview a dairy farmer (with their permission). Report back to us your findings. The purpose is to help you learn about the realities of the dairy industry and help find contacts with knowledgeable resources.
Interview with a Dairy Farmer by Elizabeth S. –
My friend, Sandra, is the owner and milker of several cows at her small homestead. She is milking a Jersey cow at present and I asked if I could interview her for this project since her one cow “operation” is more like what I envision for our family. She said yes.
ME: I see you have both a Jersey and Dexters. Why do you own both breeds? Which do you prefer for milking?
Sandra: We started with Dexters for meat. We only have 15 acres and we thought that the Dexter would be a good meat animal for our small holdings. I was able to milk the cow but the milk isn’t as creamy as I was hoping for. So we purchased a Jersey. I love our Jersey. She gives us lots of great tasting milk and about a fourth of her milk is cream. This gives us the opportunity to make butter and CHEESE! Plus she is absolutely bomb proof. She is very calm and almost soothing to have in the milking stanchion.
ME: What do you do with her babies?
Sandra: We have a couple of options. You have to start thinking of what your homestead needs are before the cow is bred. If you want and need meat, you can breed your cow to a meat bull like Low line Angus or Dexter. If the calf is a little bull, he could be raised as a steer for meat. If the calf is a little heifer, she could either be meat or be kept (or sold) as a lower producing milk cow. Your other option is to breed to a Jersey bull. They are harder to come by here so you probably would have to artificially inseminate her with Jersey semen. If your calf is a bull then he could be raised for meat. If the calf is a heifer then she would be very valuable as a milk cow.
ME: I know a man who has a milk cow and meat cows and he keeps them separate: the milk cow in one pasture and the meat cows in another. What do you do with your cows?
Sandra: (laughing) Well, I wish I had enough pasture to separate our cows but I’d probably never do that. My cows’ wellbeing is really important to me. They are very social animals. They groom each other and push on each other and love on each other. And they tend become anxious when they are separated from the herd. I’ve especially noticed that mother/ daughter pairs seem the happiest together. So even if I had more space, I’d never keep a single cow isolated. It might be easier on the farmer to keep them separated, but it’s not better for the cow.
ME: What do you feed you cows?
Sandra: The dry cows, calves and steers have access to our 15 acres in the spring, summer and fall. We try and practice pasture rotation. During the winter they eat a high quality hay. One of the local farmers has a good alfalfa/ grass hay mix that my cows seem to really like. He bales it in small bales that I can handle without any equipment. The milk cow has a special treat of oats, barley, sunflower seeds and a bit of alfalfa pellets during her time in the stanchion. I mix it myself. I tried to wean Daisy off the grain once and have her just eat a type of silage I had access to but she really didn’t like it very well. She balked at coming into the stanchion (she just balked, she never refused. She’s a good cow.) and she dropped her production. So I switched her back to my grain mix. She was happier and so was I.
ME: Pasture rotation? What is that?
Sandra: Pasture rotation is where we move our cows from one pasture to another so they can graze new areas. It helps to encourage the cows to eat all the vegetation in the one area before moving on to the next area. We don’t let them eat the pasture to the ground, but cows are like people. They will eat the things they like first and move to another section of pasture before eating the things they don’t quite like. If they are allowed to graze the whole field, you can have areas of over grazing and areas of under grazing. When you rotate your pastures you keep them in small paddocks to take bites of all the vegetation before moving them to another smallish paddock. We have our four cows on paddocks of 2-3 acres and move them according to how they have eaten down the pasture in those paddocks. Rotation allows the pastures rest between periods of grazing. We use portable electric fencing to cordon off the small pastures. The cows are used to the routine and sometimes stand patiently along the fence waiting for me to open the gate to their new pasture.
ME: How much time do chores take?
Sandra: It depends on the season. Chores in warmer weather are faster than in colder weather. I have it down to a science now. The kids help with feeding and watering the animals (horses, chickens, dogs, cats, goats, cows) and I over see them and do the milking and seeing to Daisy. The milking takes about an hour from the time I step outside my house til the time I step back into the house. The actual milking is the least time consuming of taking care of the milk cow. But I spend special time with her too: brushing her and checking out her udder for sores or anything unusual, I touch her all over and love on her. Daisy used to belong to a small dairy on the other side of Montana so she doesn’t crave the touching and loving that some of my other milk cows have liked. I think she’s just used to business when she’s in the milking stanchion. I’m hoping she’ll come to enjoy the brushing and such over time.
In the winter we check on them several times a day if the temperature is very low or if the wind is up. The animals might need to have a third portion of feed depending on how cold it is. In the night they all have a large area of warm, dry straw to bed down in. The moving in of the clean straw and the moving out the dirty straw takes more time in winter.
ME: How old is Daisy and how old was your oldest milk cow?
Sandra: We tend to keep our cows for a long time. We try to keep them as happy as possible to ensure good health. But we are a working homestead. Our focus isn’t necessarily on the highest production but we can’t have pet livestock either. When the chickens are too old to lay every day we either give them to someone who doesn’t need as many eggs or we put them into the stew pot. If a cow doesn’t produce a baby every year or every other year we investigate to try and remedy the problem before we sell her or eat her. Daisy is 6 and the other cows are 8,3 and 2 months respectively. The oldest milk cow I’ve ever had was 12. We loved her.
ME: We are working toward having a Jersey for our family house cow. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for me?
Sandra: Some people thought I was crazy to have a milk cow. “They take up so much time!” “You have to be home ALL THE TIME!” people said to me. People think I’m crazy for raising a garden and our own eggs, meat and milk. I like being “stuck” here doing chores, growing food, storing food, cooking food, eating food. I like teaching my children there’s more to food than the grocery store. It makes me feel alive. I’m alive because I am partaking in real life. Fresh veggies, milk and eggs. Who can complain about that? Don’t let others tell you what you want. It might not be glamorous but its wonderful work.
You can call me any time with any question when you get your cow.
ME: Thanks, Sandra…..
Daisy in the milking stanchion. Pretty sweet girl.
Dairy Farmer Interview by Mikayla L.
P & L Dairy, LLC
Q: What inspired you to become a dairy farmer?
A: I grew up on a dairy farm, so it was always second nature. I think it’s the best way to raise a family, and it is a great career.
Q: How long have you been involved in the dairy industry?
A: My entire life, except for about four months when I lived in the city. I love it!
Q: What is your favorite thing about being a dairy farmer?
A: There is a lot of potential for production, whether it be crops or milk. I have a drive to maximize production and improve genetics.
Q: How many cows are you currently milking?
Q: How much milk is your herd producing daily?
A: On average, our cows are producing 86 pounds each per day. That’s about 51,600 pounds total, or 6,000 gallons.
Q: What kind of ration are you feeding?
A: We feed four loads of a TMR (Total Mixed Ration) each day, which includes 5.25 lbs of alfalfa hay, 15 lbs of high moisture corn, 22 lbs of haylage, 42 lbs of corn silage, 4 lbs of cotton seed, 5.75 lbs of canola seed, 2.5 lbs of distiller’s grain, and 1.7 lbs of minerals per cow. The entire herd gets the same ration.
Q: What is the biggest obstacle that you see the dairy industry facing?
A: On the local and regional levels, I see availability of feed as a huge problem. We need to produce more feed in order to sustain the industry. Nationally, commercial producers and organic producers have to compete for market share. Globally, liquid milk consumption is gradually decreasing.
Q: With all of the controversy over the dairy industry’s impact on the environment, is there any way to make it more environmentally friendly?
A: Yes, we could install better municipal sewage systems, but that would cause production to be more expensive. In turn, prices would increase for dairy products.
Q: How do you think we, as dairy farmers, can protect ourselves from the advances of anti-production animal agriculture activist groups?
A: We need to earn the trust of the public. We can do this by sharing our stories through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Also, we can share it with news outlets, whether on television or in print.
Q: What advice do you have for young adults who want to go into this field?
A: Go for it! You’re young and mobile. You have a lot of opportunities and different pathways. Analyze all outlets of the industry. Don’t limit yourself. Explore your options.
Adult entry by Shawna R. –
Interview with Ted S., my Great Uncle and Retired Dairy Farmer By Shawna R.
The crisp winter air nipped at our noses as we made our way to the parlor. My heart nearly explodes with joy as I lock eyes with what quickly became my favorite cow, a doe eyed Jersey! It was this moment I prayed that God would show me the path to starting each and every day with this and gave purpose for my application of being awarded that beautiful little Birdie. I suppose you can say that dairy is in my blood, however a milk cow at our old ranch home, we have not! My ultimate goal is to raise my family and stock with the blessings of her milk while creating a farm and lifestyle the way God intended.
As a young girl in Idaho, I would BEG my folks to allow me to go to my Great Uncles dairy each winter break. A perfect little dairy with 12 stalls set at eye level, concrete and heat… oh to dream this as mine is not a dream that has ever left my mind! Each winter vacation I would go visit, excitedly waiting twice daily for the Three o’clock hour in which I would almost run to gather up the milk cows. I use the word almost as running in full coveralls, and galoshes over boots, well… I don’t have to tell you how nimble you don’t feel! To this day you can see my uncles eyes light up as he re-caps the story of this brave little girl who never batted an eye with a feisty cow, nor hesitated one second to reach in for a calf!
“Schmidts Dairy Puts You In A Good Mooooooo’d” You read on the barn as you enter the property. This farm originated from my Great Grandparents in the little town of Greencreek, Idaho. Great Grandmother Zita Schmidt is a saint, as that farm was started with a brood of 17 children! This dairy was operational until the last few years when the price of transporting milk for one dairy in this small rural town added to the 50 elapsed years since the youngest boy of 17 kids took over the Dairy. This equation made retirement look all the more delightful. Retirement is a funny word for a farmer, as after that many years of a twice a day three o’ clock date with your cows, you don’t just start sleeping in until noon.
SR-Do you have a favorite breed of cow, and why?
TS-I am always a fan of the Jersey and the Brown Swiss, as they are by far the most friendly and least apprehensive to load in the milk stalls.
SR-How long do dairy cows stay in your herd?
TS- They stay as long as they are producing healthy milk and healthy calves; some do better than others, but there is really no set timeline.
SR- What is your most lasting memory on the Dairy?
TS- (I was re-capped the story above) to be in total truth each calf born has its own special place in my heart.
SR-Would you have done anything different?
TS- Laughing, No.
SR-What do you feel is the biggest challenge to managing a Dairy Farm?
TS-Once you are a larger scale, managing 100 cows for example, you are challenged for a vacation from that life. Even to just go camping would often end up as a day trip somewhere with the kids as milking is an enormous responsibility to handle. As they grew my boys and the neighbor boy would come and be a backup for the farm.
SR-What advice would you have for a future dairy farmer?
TS- Do as much as you can on your own, and don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to make decisions, especially concerning your animals. It’s not always easy but it’s the way of life and you already know what to do.
SR-What would you say would be the ideal number of milk cows?
TS- 80 was a good number, I ran up to 120, but 80 was a good cap.
SR-Do you have words of caution that I should know of managing a dairy cow?
TS- Keep your cows first, happy and healthy at all times and she will be good to you.
SR-What do dairy farmers do to ensure safe milk?
TS- We were blessed to have a seamless operation that went from cow to storage. There were no buckets to carry, except for the bottles of milk to the calves that we kept separate.
SR-Are your cows given rBGH or any type of synthetic hormone? Vaccinations?
TS- I supplied for Dairygold, and the rBGH is not an option, not that I would do that to my cows anyways. Those girs gave me all they had each and every time. In fact at one time I had a big Holstein that would give 11 gallons of milk. Yes, 11. What more could you expect her to produce. Vaccinations, those were on a cycle for healthy cows and babies.
SR-Are your cows fed anything else besides grass, hay and grass silage? Grazing?
TS-We did a silage daily plus when the time allowed, grazing. We grow our own hay so they got a very constant diet.
SR-What do you feel will get you the highest milk production?
TS-Green grass, and a happy attitude. I talked to my girls, afterall we did spend countless hours together each and every day. There is no day off in the dairy world, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
SR-Is there a certain mineral or feed that you feel boosts the animals confirmation or milk production?
TS- Water would be the first thing I could think of and rest, each cow had her spot to lie comfortably warm and dry. Managing your cows comfort will get you more milk than any supplement. (We once got in trouble as kids for riding the cows!)
SR-Why are dairy farms getting bigger?
TS- If you already milk 10, milk 50 – there is more milk and buying power if you are outsourcing it. We got to a position that there was only one other small dairy up here on the prairie, as soon as they retired, I knew that was my time. I am happy and at peace with that decision, but they don’t make it easy on the small farmers. From buying supplies for your milk cows to the fields, everything is more affordable the more you are buying.
SR-Who would you recommend me to get in contact with as a resource on a home dairy?
TS- You always have my number and getting in a Dairy cattle association or club is a wealth of first hand advice.
Entry by – Jennifer P.
Mother Therese- Our Lady of the Rock
I explained to Mother Therese why I was investigating the possibility of a heifer. She had already heard about Birdie from Mother Hildegard who set up our meeting. She was very patient and seemed happy to share her experiences.
Were you raised on dairy farm? No.
How many cows are you currently milking? She is currently milking one cow. One of her cows just calved at the very end of January, a Jersey cross, and she may begin milking her also.
On average how long does it take to care for your cows on a daily basis? It can take anywhere from an hour to two hours a day depending on the season and how many cows are being milked. She is happy to currently be milking only one. (She just broke a small bone in her leg). One cow provides her enough milk to make cheese twice a week (4 gallons) and to provide milk to her island milk subscribers.
What do cows eat and how much do they eat? That is hard to say. The Monastery has an abundance of pasture which is open to the animals year round. In addition to the pasture, the cows are offered free choice hay at all times. Mother Therese also supplements with dairy grain.
What other chores involving the cow go into the one-two hour commitment? Other chores include, brushing, mucking, fresh water etc.
How much space does a cow need? Two acres should be able to support a cow if well managed and supplemented.
What type of fencing is required to contain the cow? The Monastery has secure fencing around its entire pasture. I was warned about making sure there are no weak spots because cows are curious and willing to investigate beyond their pasture.
What type of shelter is required? Shelter is provided for the cows year round however she has observed that the cows prefer to remain out in the pasture except under windy conditions.
Can cows be housed with other livestock? She has never had any problems. Her cows currently live with llamas, sheep and alpacas.
Do you keep a bull or do you use AI? Right now our cows are breed by bull. Are they Jerseys? No-She does not recommend keeping a dairy bull. According to Mother Therese dairy breed bulls are much more difficult to control than non-dairy breeds. She has used AI in the past and still has the equipment but no longer does AI. She has good things to say about AI.
How much veterinary care does a cow need? Shaw Island does not have a resident veterinarian therefore some of the challenges that a cow owner might experience and would call a veterinarian for she cannot. There are a lot of hands on learning experiences. Cows require yearly shots etc.
Do you use a milking machine? No Mother Therese does not use a milking machine. Her cows are milked by hand. She has had trouble free milking.
What about milk fever? Milk fever is a concern and it is something to be aware of but shouldn’t be enough to dissuade a prospective cow owner. All animals including cows can and will develop problems.
What do you find most challenging about your cows? Sometimes doing everything you can and still not being able to fix a problem. Seeing suffering, losing a cow or calf is always heartbreaking.
Do you have a book or resource you have found helpful and would recommend? The Family Cow. It was invaluable for her education about all things cow and has been a great guide for me as a prospective cow owner.
Are you willing to mentor me in this experience? Absolutely.
Do you think I should get a cow? Yes, without a doubt.
Adult entry – Shawn C.